“Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’; and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet if you have warned the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered yourself. Again, when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I place an obstacle before him, he shall die; since you have not warned him, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. However, if you have warned the righteous man that the righteous should not sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; and you have delivered yourself”
Like any faithful watchman, he must faithfully deliver God’s message, including all of God’s rebukes and warnings. The only warning that Judah will receive will be through Ezekiel! The prophets were often likened to watchmen in the Old Testament (Isaiah 56:10; Jeremiah 6:17; Hosea 9:8; Hab. 2:1). “The emphasis is on Ezekiel’s own lack of creative involvement: he passes on what he hears and learns unchanged, so that his own hearers can know that his message comes directly from God” (Stuart, p. 47). Therefore, it is not the task of the prophet or preacher to create his own theology or his own unique spin on a passage. “Watchmen were stationed on city walls, hilltops, or specially designed watchtowers. A watchman was to be on the alert for approaching enemies and warn the city’s people of any impending attack. This gave city dwellers outside the walls an opportunity to seek protection and gave the people time to secure the gates and man the defenses” (Bible Knowledge Comm., p. 1233).
The Watchman Principle in the New Testament
I find a number of passages that indicate that God still expects His disciples to warn the righteous and the wicked:
“Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men” (Acts 20:26). The reason that Paul could say this is that he had faithfully proclaimed God’s word and had not held back on any warning or teaching (20:27).
“Of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you” (Galatians 5:21)
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Lessons in Human Responsibility
Even if the wicked are never warned they are still responsible for their sins (Ezekiel 3:18). People are accountable to God long before they hear the gospel message, and what cuts off a person from God are their own sins, not a failure to hear the truth.
The righteous can clearly fall away and fall away to such a point that they “die in their own sins” (3:20).
The sins that condemn us are our own – not the sins of our parents or Adam’s transgression.
God is not going to change His mind about sin and human responsibility. The sinner who does not repent, “shall surely die” (3:18).
If a faithful Christian goes back into the world, all their efforts and years of faithfulness are erased (3:20). Thus, I can never retire from being a faithful Christian and neither can I say, “I have done enough”.
“The obstacle” (3:20): God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13ff), yet God does allow factors, events, and things that will challenge our faith to come into our lives. While God allows the obstacle, at the same time He is warning the sinner. An obstacle is simply something the individual either finds offensive, or it might be a delusion which the deserter finds as a convenient excuse behind which to hide. Such an obstacle might involve people who fall away, finding an apostate group of people who will welcome them with open arms. The obstacle is not placed to deliberately cause this man to sin, but rather the obstacle is allowed to come across the path of one already departing from God to see how he would continue to respond.
“But his blood I will require at your hand”
If Ezekiel does not speak out, he will be held just as guilty and rebellious as any wicked person. Wickedness includes not spreading the truth or speaking out against sin and error. “Just as the blood of a murdered man demanded retribution by the nearest kinsman on the murderer (Genesis 9:5f), so a man dying unwarned would be regarded virtually as the victim of a murder committed by the unfaithful watchman” (Smith, p. 87). The apostles believed that the same principle applies in the New Covenant as well (Acts 18:6; 20:26).
One temptation that confronts us is the desire to please men and refrain from upsetting them with the truth. Often we think that not saying something is far more “loving” than telling someone they are sinning and lost. Yet the person who really loves their neighbor will rebuke them if necessary, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6), and “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed” (27:5). Are we tempted to immediately get rid of those friends that have righteously wounded us? There are times when maybe we don’t realize who is the true friend or the true foe. We readily accept the kisses and hugs but reject the wounds despite their source. “We are so afraid of pain!” (Alden, p. 190). What all this means is if we cannot bring ourselves to speak the truth to friends and neighbors in sin, then we really do not love them – we love ourselves, and our comfort far more. If this is true, then we really do not love God as well, for we are unwilling to do His work and bring His word to those who desperately need it. John wrote,“The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
“But they won’t listen anyway”
It is easy to opt out of correcting someone when it looks like they would not accept our attempt to help them if we tried. Yet this is exactly the type of audience that Ezekiel was told to warn:
“For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or difficult language, but to the house of Israel… yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me… Go to the exiles, to the sons of your people, and speak to them and tell them, whether they listen or not, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:5,7,11). May I suggest that preaching “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) is the same as still talking to and preaching to people, regardless of whether they are in the mood to hear.
“You have delivered yourself”
If we are tempted to remain quiet we need to remember this verse. Our eventual salvation is inherently wrapped up in bringing God’s message to men and women, even if they are not receptive. I have nothing against being sensitive to the feelings of the sinner, yet we must be equally sensitive and dead serious about making sure we get to heaven.
God’s Point of View
Instead of being so caught up in how “we feel” (scared) when we warn the sinner or unfaithful member, we need to try to see things from God’s perspective.
Every warning that a sinner receives in this lifetime only reinforces God’s verdict at the final judgment. Even if they do not repent, God’s integrity is maintained. They were not warned once, but often.
The angels are rejoicing when the warning is given; God is proud! He is saying, “Finally, someone had the courage to tell them the truth!”
Remember the Family
Often the people we need to confront are people who have burned all sorts of bridges with loved ones and family and our warning is often greatly appreciated by the family. “Finally, someone had the courage to tell them what we have been telling them for years”. When a congregation or family must withdraw from an unfaithful member, that congregation or family is always encouraged when someone else bends the ear of the loved one they had to discipline.
Remember the Children and the Spouse
Particularly with men and women who have left their spouses and committed adultery, we need to back up the forsaken spouse and the children left behind, and present to the adulterer God’s clear teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:9). Congregations, preachers and elderships that look the other way and say nothing are only allowing the adulterer to inflict more damage on his or her former family, and do not do the adulterer any favors by withholding from them the truth that they too must discontinue their sin to have peace with God.